Belaboring the Obvious

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Tapestry of Lies....

In thinking about what the new Dark Ages might look like and how we might end up there, it was worth looking at what others now say about that other Dark Ages. Historians and anthropologists now say that the term "Dark Ages" was a misnomer, the product of the cultural centrism of Petrarch, who first devised the term.

But, with regard to one specific area of interest--information transfer--I don't think Petrarch was all that wrong in his estimation. As the Roman Empire fell into dissolution, it was common for informal nation-states to form and reform as the Goths, the Vandals, etc., etc., occupied different parts of Europe, depending upon who had most recently overthrown whom. Monks tended to regard the preservation of knowledge--especially that only available in Greek and Latin--as paramount, and by the 7th or 8th century, most monasteries had secret libraries as a hedge against the instability they saw all around them in the outside world. No sense in letting the unwashed and unappreciative just burn books for the fun of it (as might have happened at the so-called Great Library of Alexandria, either intentionally, or as an accident of war). The instability of Europe that came with the downfall of the Roman Empire meant that information didn't move as it did before, and there were all these pagans running around with their own superstitions to promote (so the Church thought, at any rate).

In a way, by the 6th or 7th century, the Church had what it needed to keep its primary world view and a central body of thought intact--lots of almost free labor to copy books, a laborious and expensive task when done by hand, and a network of bishops to arrange the movement of communications across often dangerous territory. No wonder the Church eventually came to think that its world view should dominate.

What changed all this (if it's possible to reduce the Renaissance to a couple of sentences) was that successful trade enabled private individuals to not only buy books, but to commission their authorship, as well, and the knowledge gained enabled them to even more successfully engage in trade. Money from trade enabled the first universities, pooling not only the knowledge in books, but the cumulative knowledge of the people who wrote books, as well. The work of Arabs in mathematics, astronomy and optics became much more widely known, all of which further aided trade and put more money in private pockets.

Once movable type was invented, knowledge of all sorts expanded rapidly, languages coalesced into uniform syntax (easier to edit and print), and the common man suddenly had, with the ability to read, much of what was known in the world at his fingertips. Voila! Enlightenment.

What does that have to do with the United States today? Possibly, everything. As the people of the Enlightenment created new, modernity-appropriate political systems (such as US republican democracy), they also helped with the evolution of mechanisms such as natural philosophy (science) to test knowledge, to create systems of thought with codified rules which could winnow out superstition from fact.

Today, as throughout history, knowledge is power. More appropriately today, information is power, and that information moves through society today by mechanisms that do not necessarily obey the codified rules of the Enlightenment. Those of us in what we like to think of as the reality-based community are perplexed, flummoxed, in fact, at how misinformation gains purchase in the general population, and how some politicians (Cheney comes immediately to mind) can continue to promote what we conceive of as lies, long after the assertions have been disproved by the available evidence.

Part of the answer why this happens is explored in a new book by Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. In an interview, Goldberg says:

One of the things Hannah Arendt talks about is the way totalitarian movements construct an entire parallel reality, and then insist that that reality be substituted for the actual reality. You see this with everything from what’s going on in the science class, to the construction of foreign policy, to the promotion of abstinence education to the kind of fictitious numbers that are given for the Bush tax cuts. It’s something quite new in American politics--this idea almost of radical relativism--the idea that truth is determined by the person who has the power to impose it.

This view is consistent with the Church's attempts from post-Roman Empire times through the Enlightenment to control the flow and content of information, but, unlike Goldberg's premise, disinformation is in common use today for a confluence of interests, some political, some not. It's easy to see how fundamentalists would make use of an alternative reality with regard to science--science has the power to undo creation myths, and the rigidly religious would naturally gravitate to a world view which either dismissed science, or tried to co-opt science through pseudo-science such as creationism or intelligent design. The difference is only in the degree of sophistication of the deviance from actual science. The intention is still the same--primacy of the creation myth.

There's nothing new in this, but what is new is the alignment of different elements of society through the use of this technique which attacks science and rational thought. What may be happening is that special interests may realize that this anti-Enlightenment attitude of the religious can be exploited. As I've suggested previously, Republicans in a marketing sense have tried to cross-brand their party and Christianity. What if this cross-branding is now being extended to corporate interests through anti-intellectualism?

Fundamentalists seem to categorically reject science when it does not conform to their world view, and that has the effect of institutionalizing anti-intellectualism in that group. When oil companies seek to further their self-interest by challenging the science of climate change, they may be finding ready allies in the religious right, and they do so by creating an alternate reality that sounds convincingly like science without actually submitting the science to rigorous examination--there is little substantive difference between the methodology of oil company-sponsored climate research and the intelligent design hypotheses of the fundamentalists' Discovery Institute. Both fail to conform to scientific method because they intend to fit only the facts which further a predetermined outcome.

Politically, this anti-intellectualism is most acute, and it is a new and recent phenomenon, but not as new as Goldberg suggests. The fundamentalist's disrespect for science shows up in diverse--and dangerous--ways. Ronald Reagan could not be brought to seriously discuss AIDS because he genuinely felt (even though he was not particularly religious, he was inordinately superstitious and scientifically ignorant) that it was a retribution sent by God. Today, though, this anti-intellectualism shows up in all sorts of ways, and in a sense, it's entirely due to religion's almost autonomic need to repudiate science as a challenge to religion. Condoms greatly minimize the opportunity for pregnancy and STDs. Because anything that interferes with conception is considered bad (but such can't be said straightforwardly in contemporary, sophisticated society without inviting derision), another alternate reality must be created--the science is wrong on condom safety, and, therefore, abstinence is the only effective means of preventing AIDS. Thus, the Bush administration's catering to this brand of anti-intellectualism for political purposes.

This politicizing of anti-intellectualism shows up in other ways--in White House aides scrubbing negative global warming information from government publications (which furthers the aims of both religious and corporate interests), in a PR official at NASA rewriting press releases to conform with religious creation precepts, even with the determination to proceed with programs of torture, despite substantial scientific data suggesting that torture is not an effective means of extracting accurate information from suspects. George Bush himself epitomizes this anti-intellectualism, as he frequently emphasizes that his decisions come from his gut, his heart, or God, but never from his head, from his rational faculties.

Is this a sort of anthromorphism of government, where the entirety of it comes to be seen as operating like its president, or is something else at work, manipulating this anti-intellectual sentiment in society? I think so, and that's where Cheney and the other neo-cons come in. Their intellectual mentor, Leo Strauss, subscribed to the belief that it was permissible and necessary for leaders--the "wise men" of society--to spread "noble lies" in order to bring the masses to the sort of cohesiveness that nationalism required, that liberal society was antithetical to national order and purpose. The Cheney/neo-con penchant for secrecy is an attempt to control the flow of information. The outright lying is an attempt to control the content, all directed toward a predetermined end.

Other forces, such as the media, cooperate in this effort, principally by treating truth and lies as simply opposing views. To define one view as truthful and the other as untruthful would be to make value judgments, which the press seems loathe to do.

As a consequence, many different societal forces have come together in an alliance depending on prevarication, dissembling, outright lies, it is true. But all depend upon those lies in a specific way--to deny the efficacy to society of rational thought and scientific inquiry. The appeal of creationism to fundamentalists is rooted in the same reactionary anti-intellectualism which makes it possible to believe that oil is magically produced and renewed by the earth and that climate change is a myth perpetuated by hysterical Luddites, which in turn improves the prospects of the oil companies, upon which the Republicans depend for PR and campaign contributions. As the Republicans and Christians are cross-branded, so this anti-intellectualism improves the prospects of Christians in obtaining the kinds of theocratic changes they desire, if Republicans can remain in political power. If Republicans can remain in power, they can then create new myths about "freedom" and "democracy" which mask their ultimate purposes of using military force (or the threat of it) to pry open new markets on trade terms advantageous to them, as was the intention in Iraq, and may well be for Iran.

Just as the Church in the so-called Dark Ages sought to control the flow and content of information for its own purposes, so, too, are these elements in society today using the repudiation of science and rational thought to control the flow and content of information in society today (worthy of note in this regard are the repeated attempts to suppress the views of "liberal" instructors at the university level by a variety of means, from intimidation to legislation).

The one thing binding all rational thought is a sense of healthy skepticism, and if the new Dark Ages are to be pushed back, the still-rational segments of society will have to teach that ability as never before.

When belief becomes stronger than rational thought, even democratic society is ripe for exploitation by minority demagogues and charlatans of all stripes.
Polls show that American society is easily led to conclusions which are wrong on the basis of fact, that they often have held views which they would not have held had they exhibited some healthy skepticism and a tendency to be rational in the face of irrational claims (even as late as last year, a very high majority of soldiers in Iraq believed they were in Iraq to avenge the attacks of 9/11, a belief not supported in any way by the facts).

Just as the marketing and public relations principles espoused by Lewis Powell in 1971 were adopted by many diverse groups on the right with loosely aggregated aims, this latest strategy of fostering anti-intellectualism and a disrespect for rational thought is meant to act synergistically, where one lie reinforces another, where attacks on rationalism by one group benefits many others employing the same tactics.

The only antidote for superstition is enlightenment.


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